Ahead of the second round of the French presidential election on 6 May, the Socialist candidate Francois Hollande currently has an opinion poll lead over right-wing incumbent Nicolas Sarkozy.
Desperate to retain his post, Sarkozy has made repeated overtures to the 6.4 million people who voted for the fascist Front National (FN) in the first round of the election on 22 April.
He warned of a “communalist vote” after unfounded press reports that 700 mosques were calling on Muslims to back Hollande.
Sarkozy tried to revive a controversy over swimming pool opening hours. Women-only swimming sessions, a perfectly mundane practice in most countries, are portrayed by some in France as a concession to “communalism” and a threat to Republican secularism.
This tradition claims to adopt a neutral stance towards religion. In practice it has been used as a means of making French society one of the most Islamophobic in Europe.
The Socialist response to Sarkozy’s offensive has been appalling. Arnaud Montebourg, a leading Socialist politician, said last week there was a “consensus” between the Socialists, Sarkozy and the FN on the question of immigration. “When Sarkozy says immigration must be stopped, I don’t point the finger at him,” he declared.
Sarkozy understands that FN voters are not just looking for repressive immigration policies. They want “law and order” and authoritarian leadership.
He therefore issued an unprecedented call for his supporters to mobilise on May Day in defence of “real work”. He wants to defy the unions which, he claims, do not represent their members’ interests.
This means there were three May Day mobilisations in Paris this week—the traditional one by workers and the left, Sarkozy’s rally and one called by the fascist FN.
Jean-Luc Melenchon, presidential candidate for the radical Left Front, compared Sarkozy’s statements with those of the Vichy government that collaborated with the Nazis during the Second World War.
He drew a parallel between moves to conjure up an “immigrant problem” and the way that Vichy had invented a “Jewish problem”. Both were “inventions of the extreme right”, he said.
Melenchon added that people “must be in the streets on May Day to show that the workers are stronger than the fascists. We’re going to show that our preoccupation is not immigration, but pay, unemployment, health, education—workers’ demands.”
There is more at stake here than simply a show of force by workers on May Day. The FN must be stopped from building on its election success and creating an organisation that is capable of confronting the labour movement.
Anti-racists have demonstrated their potential to resist the FN over the past two decades. But the mainstream legitimacy granted to the FN has allowed the fascists to recover.
There is an urgent need for anti-racists to take on the FN—and defending Muslims from racism must be at the heart of that campaign.
Who voted for the fascist FN?
- Over 6.4 million backed the FN in the first round of France’s presidential elections. That’s about one in six voters.
- The FN vote is uneven. It entrenched its support in rural heartlands. But it did badly in urban working class areas, scoring just 6 percent in Paris.
- FN voters are less concerned with unemployment than the average French voter. They are primarily motivated by hostility towards immigrants.
Jim Wolfreys teaches French politics at King’s College London. He is co-author with Peter Fysh of The Politics of Racism in France